Your Turn: Mainstream Game Reviews

Posted by Andrew L {Avid Gamer} | 18-Feb-14 | 26 comments

Your Turn - A BoardGaming.com Discussion

Hey there, I’m Andrew; game industry professional, reviewer, gamer, fellow Boardgaming.com member and the host of BoardGaming.com’s discussion series called “Your Turn.”

This is your chance to let us know what YOU think about a variety of topics related to hobby gaming. I’ll start the conversation and then it’s “your turn” to chime in and add to the discussion. Each Your Turn discussion will have a new topic, and we may even have some special guests make a surprise visit down the road. In the meantime…

Mainstream Game Reviews

Reading mainstream game reviews makes me crazy…sometimes.

See, like most of you, I love to play games – any kind of game. And after I play I love to share my experience. Writing reviews is just an extension of that enjoyment. I do enjoy writing them very much. I think I may be unique in that, I review games most of the time to see if someone else will enjoy the game – even if I don’t. Not everyone does that. I feel it’s a big responsibility considering the number of folks it takes to make a game from concept to store shelf.

The hobby gaming community has grown by leaps and bound the past 10 years. Along with that growth has been a boom of just about anyone sharing their love of games on the inter-web. All this focus on the hobby is great. Well, mostly. Here are a few things that are important to me about mainstream game reviews:

1. Above all – numero uno

My pet peeve with reviews is they need to be written objectively with the idea that any one person’s opinion is just that; their opinion. A reviewer can be an authority on game mechanics, strategies, heck they can win every single game they play. But a reviewer can’t tell me what I would like. Instead they should tell me who would like the game. (Shameless plug) That’s what I like about BoardGaming.com reviews. If you’re a Power Gamer we don’t insult you for not liking Fluxx. Fluxx is probably not for you. Stay away.

2. Negative reviews

I cringe when I read a negative review. Maybe because I am a softy. In reality, most bad games don’t get produced. Manufacturers won’t take a risk like that. Which means that most games are at least …ok? Which also means, that a negative review is just another way of saying that the reviewer didn’t like that specific game. That’s not objective. I wish mainstream reviewers wouldn’t review games they don’t like. I feel that all the folks that worked on the game are being done a disservice. I’m not sure that the bad review will help gamers make a good choice, if that the reviewer’s intention. Their silence should say more than words.

3. Games they haven’t played

Reading the rule book and analyzing a game isn’t playing it. A game needs to be experienced with players and interaction. Reviewers can’t provide a real review without experiencing it the way it was meant to be played. If someone hasn’t played a game then it shouldn’t be reviewed. Sometimes, I can sort of tell that the reviewer is just walking through the gameplay and hasn’t really played.

4. Provide a good “How to Play” overview

I watch and read reviews to find out how to play mostly. Going back to #1, this will allow me to make my own decision on whether I will play or not. Reading rulebooks is fun to me, but watching someone play is awesome (Thanks Rodney Smith and family!).

5. Try not to compare one game to another

“It’s like Heroscape, Resistance and Dixit combined!” What? Unless we the readers have played all those games, the comparison will fall flat. It would be much more effective for reviewers to not rely on game comparisons so that a wider audience will understand what’s unique about the game.

The reviews I am talking about above are mainstream reviews for mass public consumption – not user reviews. User reviews are honest and unbiased because they are reviews of games the user own or played of their own volition. It bears mentioning that reviewers who are sent review copies have to review those games. They are obligated to. And I guess that may be where these issues above go awry. Time and attention span only allow someone to apply so much focus to each game.

Needless to say, I very much adhere to the philosophy of BoardGaming.com (Shameless plug #2!): there is a game for everyone. We try to provide a good overview and then say what we like about the game and make sure that we communicate who that game is right for. But in my case, I don’t presume to think to tell you what you should think. I think I’ll leave your thinking up to you. Deal?

Who are your favorite reviewers? How much does a review affect your decision to play/buy a game? What parts of a review affect your decisions the most (ie: game play, setup, components)? What parts of a review do you tend to skip over?

Your turn…

Comments (26)

Gamer Avatar
7
I'm Completely Obsessed
Book Lover
Canada
Advanced Reviewer

When I am curious about a game, I like to check out The Dice Tower as I find I can often learn a lot about what I want to know from them. I try to pair that with community reviews like the ones here at Boardgaming.com. The main things that I look to learn out of a review tend to be game play and component quality.

Last semester, as part of one of my classes we had to design a personal branding web site. For mine, I included a page of game reviews and had a lot of fun doing it (I’m planning on starting a similar blog/web site over the summer that will include a similar review page, once I’ve done some revisions and developed some things out a bit more).

I agree with your points about what makes a good review. Positive reviews are preferable to negative ones, as the goal (at least from my perspective) is to encourage gaming and help people find games that will interest them. One time that I feel can call for an exception would be that rare instance where an expansion for an otherwise great game is released that is for some reason broken or sub-standard quality. Even then I think the review should focus on the positive aspects if possible, or at least a balanced approach (“this is good, but this may be an issue for some people” or “players familiar with the game may find that this one doesn’t live up to their expectations”). It’s pretty rare that I have encountered a game that there was just nothing good at all to be said about it.

My review style on boardgaming.com differs a bit from the ones for the web site project (here, I tend to be a bit more casual, less objective–more like a gamer *cough cough fan boy* than a reviewer).

When I started working on more formal reviews, the formula that came together was to give a brief overview (manufacturer, estimated play time, number of players, etc.) followed by a section on the game components, then a run down of game play. If the game has expansions, a brief mention of them is included at the end, as well as some closing comments that aim to summarize the game’s qualities in terms of the kinds of game play styles it might appeal to. This is where I sometimes include a semi-comparison between games, but only in the sense of “if you enjoy games like X, there’s a good chance you’ll like this one, too.”

Gamer Avatar
9
Grand Master Grader
Movie Lover
Book Lover
I play blue

I enjoyed the article. Thanks to the internet and to a lesser extent, social media, people write lots of reviews. Amazon.com has tens of millions of reviews. Yelp let’s users rate everything from physicians to restaurants and auto mechanics. Some write thoughtful, eloquent, and fact filled reviews, and some write something like “…I hated it”. And online user reviews of products and services run the gamut from delightfully informative to absurd and incomprehensible.

Boardgaming.com has the same spectrum of reviews. Most are in some manner or another helpful. This applies to negative reviews too. When I consider a game purchase, I read all the reviews I can. Oftentimes one point or aspect of a negative review might make or break a game for me. For example, a game might only play well with three or more players, or it may be more conflict driven than I prefer.

Technology has made it easy for virtually anyone to be a critic. Some folks review and write like pros, and some don’t. Researching a game or other product often requires consumers to go though scores of bad reviews to find something truly useful. A negative review can be as helpful as a glowing one. I enjoy reading and writing reviews of things that fascinate and intrigue me. Board games rank high among those things.

Gamer Avatar
3
Noble

Regarding negative reviews, I think there can be conflation on the part of the reader between “critical” and “negative”.

All reviews should be critical, and criticism can be both positive and negative but should always be constructive and explained. Given that we are all human, criticism is pretty much always subjective.

Saying “I don’t like X because it sucks and the designer must be an idiot” is negative and not constructive. There is no value to this.

Saying “I don’t like X because an average game takes four hours to play and my group and I prefer shorter games” Is subjective constructive criticism. There is value in this.

If the only reviews out in the world were positive reports of what people liked then that would be deeply unhelpful indeed.

Gamer Avatar
4
Comic Book Fan
PC Game Fan
Sentinels of the Multiverse fan

It would take a lot for me to say that something is outright “bad”, unless it was some glaring design flaw that I could corroborate with others on. Any good review should explain the types of game play mechanics you expect to see, some basic rules and rather than saying an aspect of a game is “good” or “bad” you can describe it in terms of “What I liked” and “Who would like this?”. I agree with many points you made in the article as well, thanks for writing this.

Gamer Avatar
6
The Gold Heart
Plaid Hat Games fan
Sentinels of the Multiverse fan
Bronze Supporter

Great comments! I believe I may need to clarify a few points. Ulp!

First and foremost – your opinions are all correct! (No it’s not a cop out!) You see everyone looks for different things in reviews and so this was my contribution to telling you, agree or not, what I like in them. As Granny said: ‘I think we all have our own way.’ Couldn’t agree more!

The most popular subject of responses was my take on negative reviews.
I want to make it clear that I don’t mind negativity IN reviews. I don’t like mainstream reviewers that completely trash a game. That’s what bothers me. I want honesty in reviews (obviously). For example, if the game plays well but the artwork is awful, that’s honesty and I guess negativity within a review. Perfectly cool. (Well… not for the illustrator!) But if a reviewer doesn’t like the game and just says it’s awful without objectivity ( aha! numero uno!) then they are wasting my time. It doesn’t tell me anything except that that one person (out of the 7.1 billion people in the world) hated it.

Also just because you are a mainstream reviewer doesn’t mean you can objectively review all game types. I have a tough time reviewing Euro games – not my wheel house. In fact some I just don’t like. IF I review one, I speak mainly of their appeal to others and the mechanics that I enjoyed or were challenging. But if I didn’t like it, I will never leave a review with “Don’t ever play this game, it sucks.” because clearly it doesn’t suck – to many people.

Some other quick comments:

On “Objectivity;” it is easy to be objective – or at least I think so, I just imagine what other people would like and understand that you may not like what they like. That’s my preference in a review.
On a “How to Play Overview.;” I think it’s crucial because that’s how I fill in the blanks. It’s what peaks my interest. Just like Jim’s is graphic art. I can overlook that if I see a game play mechanics that I know I will enjoy.

On “Comparing Games;” I know it’s a tough one. I said try not to compare one game to another. But I do it too. I guess it more of a warning that as a reviewer the first thing I think of when I put a period at the end of a comparative sentence is: “ I hope the reader has played this game that I am comparing it to.” So sometime I don’t take the chance. In the case of my Glass Road review I do compare quite a bit because this game was directly spawned from Uwe’s other games. He says so in the rule book. So that ok. But I always try to have a game stand on its own merit.

I am still not seeing any names – who are your favorite reviewers?

Here are a few of mine: Ryan Metzler, Kaja Sadowski and Joanna Gaskell from Starlit Citadel, Zee Garcia, and Tox from Crits Happen. I even like the Shut up and Sit Down Guys except for their reviews that completely trash games.

Anyway keep the comments coming. I feel that knowing what you all like and prefer in reviews is making me an even better reviewer.

Gamer Avatar
8
Professional Reviewer
BoardGaming.com Beta 1.0 Tester
Silver Supporter
Sentinels of the Multiverse fan

Talk about controversial topic on the negative review comment:-) I would have to agree with most people here that negative reviews are valuable information. However, a good negative review must contain clear explanations of what puts the game in a negative light. Good negative reviews help me better weigh the true “pros” and “cons” of a game, because a lot of really positive reviews tend to gloss over the “cons” of a game.

Bad negative reviews are ones that are insulting, have no constructive criticism, and are generally emotional elitism, so I tend to avoid those.

I agree that a review must be objective to a point, but I can’t expect pure objectiveness in a review. This is someone’s opinion after all. So, I at least expect a reviewer to be honest about their opinions and emotions about the game…something I still need to work on myself.

Comparisons to other games are a not a bad thing at all, so long as the entire review is not one big comparison where the reviewer forgets to actually review the game. I tried to do this in my review of Jaipur on this site as one example.

I have no favorite reviewer that I go too. By taking in many reviewer’s perspectives…even negative, I can obtain a clearer picture of the game and determine if I really want to fork over my hard-earned money or not. So, I like Boardgaming.com, BGG, DiceTower, UndeadViking, TableTop, etc.

Overall, good article Andrew.

Gamer Avatar
5
Tasty Minstrel Games Fan
Eminent Domain Fan

I try not to give bad reviews if I can help it, and try to play a game multiple times in different ways to see if maybe there’s a good quality about it that I missed by playing a certain way (or with certain people!). But the truth of the matter is, even with risk-aversion, bad games do come out, and I think it does a disservice to the industry and to the community at large to not do negative reviews. Besides, if we’re going to try our best to be objective about reviews, even a negative reviewer will attempt to be as fair as possible to a game they didn’t care for, and hopefully realize that at best, maybe the game isn’t just for them.

I value the negative reviews alongside the positive ones, because when I’m looking for a new game to play I read multiple reviews and try to form an overall picture from them of how the game plays.

Gamer Avatar
9
Gamer - Level 7
BoardGaming.com Beta 1.0 Tester
Petroglyph
Explorer - Level 3

I think the biggest point of contention in your review was the section on negative reviews. I too differ there but for a different reason. There are games I don’t like that are very popular(Dominion being a prime example). I have not reviewed it because I was biased against it and didn’t want to write a review therefore. However, there are just plain bad games out there. This is usually caused by one of 3 reasons. 1) Growing market has created greater demand leading to games being published before they are fully ready. 2)Kickstarter- Game design has come to remind me of American Idol. Just because you think you have talent and all your friends and family agree, doesn’t mean you can design(sing). Getting a game published is a hard, long process and while I like KS the recent Cthulu related debacle is a prime example of Caveat Emptor. 3)Once you agree to let a company publish a game they usually reserve the right to make some changes to the game to make it more marketable. Sometimes those changes can help the game, but to often they muddy the rules or design flow. This has led to the later remarketing, by the designer, of an earlier released game usually with the disclaimer by the designer that this release was his “original” design. An example of this is the 2 player card game “Balloon Cup” re-released as “Pinata”. Although I like both versions of the game.

Gamer Avatar
9
Miniature Painter
Rosetta Stone
Advanced Reviewer
BoardGaming.com Beta 1.0 Tester

One of the things I find valuable about this website is that individuals can declare what kind of gamer they are. By comparing their review with their declaration, in combination with others reviews and gamer types, it paints a clearer picture of what I might be able to expect from a game before shelling out what is often some significant dough for the price of entry.

The content of a review rarely bothers me. My pet peeve is the lack of content some people put into a review. First impressions of a game are fine, but, a review is more than a few sentences or a paragraph, at least in my mind. I do not believe I am some kind of great wordsmith, but I do put a great deal of thought into any review I decide to write and am willing to spend time to provide content, be it positive or negative.

When I read a review, it is because I am interested in your opinion about the game in question. I appreciate when people take the time to provide that opinion.

Gamer Avatar
7
Draco Magi fan
I'm a Player!
Book Lover
I Am What I Am

Thanks for the article, Andrew. And thanks to everyone who’s been responding with what they look for (and loathe) in a review. I have yet to review a game here and have been reading tons of other people’s reviews, making note of what I value in a review.

One of the things I’ve noticed I like are when reviews are easy to scan, with paragraph breaks and section headings that separate opinions and facts (such as comments on mechanics and component quality).

Gamer Avatar
7
US Army Service
I play green

Interesting read. So let me reply to you by matching your points.

1) Not much to say to this, but Objectivity is a hard thing to achieve. Remember all reviews express the opinions of those who write them.

2) Negative Reviews are helpful for a lot of people. If someone is afraid to do a negative review or say what is wrong with a game, they should not be making reviews. Bad games do see press quite a bit, and a lot were released last year even. Plus saying negative reviews shouldn’t be made is a huge disservice to the industry. Only hearing “Good thing, good thing, good thing” should raise red flags on what you are being told that about.

3) Actually quite a lot of information can be gained from just reading the rule book alone. It can tell you what mechanics are messed up, what stuff can be exploited, etc. In fact most game experiences just come down to if you enjoy being around those you play the games with. I don’t think anyone is going to sit down and have people they don’t like or even hate play with them. I have passed on games because I saw how much of a mess the rulebooks where, or how the mechanics were. I even dropped a tabletop RPG just because the first and most important rule they put in there is that the PCs can only be affected by stuff they choose to be. Wrong thing to see in a game like that. Plus if you don’t play the game by yourself to get things down before showing your group, you are doing something wrong.

4)I am sorry but a How to Play is not a review, its teaching someone who is too lazy to read the rules. This is not the job of a reviewer. If they do, its an extra. Gameplay/Turn/Round overview or pointing out something unique/intersting or bad in the gameplay is one thing, but flat out teaching you is another.

5)Actually comparisons are completely acceptable. There are enough types of games to do this. You can compare a worker placement game to another worker placement game, etc. It lets people know the feel of certain parts of the game. No one I know would use the example you game with out giving it some context.

Its fine that you don’t like mainstream reviews. I like them, in fact I have a few that I follow that I share quite a bit in common with on what we look for in games. If they don’t like it odds are pretty high I most likely won’t. But the big swing for me is what friends tell me. I hold their opinions higher then reviewers I haven’t met. Plus one needs to bite the bullet and play games they don’t like with their friends that like them. Example: I hate Descent with a passion due to how badly designed, broken, and skewed in favor of the one running the monsters it is, but I will play it because I have two friends who absolutely love it. In the end its about having fun, enjoying time with them, and making some good memories.

Gamer Avatar
8
Rosetta Stone
Football Fan
Explorer - Level 5
Junior

I generally like to avoid giving a bad review also. Sometimes I slip, and forget that it’s better to tell someone why you might LIKE a game, even if you mention things that intrigued you. But honestly, I can’t avoid giving a bad review if something about the game deserves it.

Let me clarify:
1. My review of Munchkin was off, and should probably be revised. I really, really don’t like Munchkin at all. But I know several people that do, and could probably find a way to highlight the positives without totally bashing it. That’s my bad, and in that way I agree with Andrew.

2. But my review of Heap is an example of where a bad review is warranted. I felt that I was fair and pointed out a few things that were fun about the game. Actually, the game itself was fun and entertaining right up until we found out what happens in the “final race.” I have a real problem with a mechanic that throws out the whole game, then starts everything over on the final turn.

Could I have been a bit more fair in my Heap review? Probably. But we had 4 players in the game and a few people watching, and the reaction to the final race rules was a resounding “What? That’s stupid!”

At any rate, I agree with Andrew’s rules with the caveat I listed here. I can only suggest games like Heap to people who can make up their own house rules, or people who don’t care about following rules.

Gamer Avatar
6
Miniature Painter
Novice Reviewer
Knight-errant

If a reviewer never has anything bad to say about a game, then I don’t trust that he isn’t just a paid shill for the game company. I don’t know though what these “mainstream” reviews are though. I pretty much only watch the dice tower and read reviews here. Is dice tower mainstream?

I also do like comparisons of one game to another. If that is the entire body of your review, it does me no good. But if you say “it plays like X”, and I know X, and like/dislike X, then I have a valid base. If I don’t know X, well then hopefully they did a good job of explaining the rest of the game.

Gamer Avatar
8
I play purple
Football Fan
Movie Lover

I feel my review of River Dragons is a prime example of #5 as I compared it to Chinese Checkers, Robo Rally, & Mother Sheep. 🙂 I agree with @Granny – the best way for me to describe and associate the hundreds of games I’ve played is to have these analogies. Same with books, video games, clothes, and movies. Once in a while we get a game that doesn’t seem similar to anything – the good original pinnacle and bad, what-were-they-thinking types. I love Netflix’ ability to recommend movies based on my prior reviews. Games shouldn’t be that different (and this is something I’m developing for our local game library website at spielbound.org specifically to help people find other games they may like).

Gamer Avatar
8
Legend of the Five Rings Fan
Advanced Reviewer
Tactician
Guardian Angel

If a review is well-written, or does a good job of highlighting specific qualities important to a potential buyer, then it doesn’t matter if the review is positive or negative. I’d rather understand why a reviewer likes or dislikes a game than know only that they liked it or disliked it, because that can be illustrative — as others have said, if I know what you disliked and why, it might spur me to check the game out if our tastes are different, or avoid the game if they are similar. I have some movie reviewers I read precisely for this reason; they are excellent at articulating the reasoning behind their opinions.

Gamer Avatar
8
United Kingdom
Advanced Reviewer
Knight-errant
Tinkerer

Wow, there I was, about to point out that a well written negative review can be the most valuable thing ever, and then I see that most of the comments so far are taking that stance.

Whatever a reviewer’s opinion of a game, if s/he can articulate the reasons for the opinion, then it’s a good and useful review. There have been a few occasions when I have seen or read a review which was largely full of the reviewer explaining the things that he didn’t like, and I have thought, yup, that’s the game for me. And similarly, some positive reviews have put me right off a game.

As for favourite reviewers, I am hooked on Shut Up & Sit Down, both their video reviews and their (all too rare) written reviews. Their output is highly entertaining, but also insightful and thoughtful. A lot of the time I disagree with their preferences, but their thoughts on what makes a game fun for them or not are always interesting.

Gamer Avatar
9
Gamer - Level 8
Explorer - Level 5
Critic - Level 3
Junior

Negative reviews can be just as good as positives reviews if the reviewer can keep a reflected view on the game and what he/she feels the game is missing.

I’ve on more than one occation bought a game after a negative review because it was well written and made me realize this was a game I’d enjoy.

Gamer Avatar
8
Intermediate Reviewer
Copper Supporter
Viscount / Viscountess

About negative reviews: I like them as much as I like positive reviews because I want to know what are the problems with a game. That way I can feel safer to buy a game that I have not played yet. This is not to say that I would not buy a game because of a negative review, in fact I did buy several games because of negative reviews. I understand what the review did not like about the game but I did not care about that negative comment.

Gamer Avatar
7
Knight-errant
Cooperative Game Explorer
Amateur Advisor
Gamer - Level 6

There are a number of mainstream reviewers out there. A lot of them are really good at their job, and they care about the games that they play. I can’t say that I have a favorite that stands out, but I tend to like reviews that give an opinion on a game without trying actively to pull or push a reader/viewer away from a game. Personal experiences matter, as that’s ultimately what a game is about.

Negative reviews; it’s something I think about a lot. I’ve gone back over my reviews here on the sight and realized that I tend to have mostly positive reviews on everything, as I do enjoy a lot of the games that I play. I respect a lot of the time and effort that people put into making a game, and I realize that most to all of the games that are published have been tested for balance and game dynamics. It’s why I don’t ever say that a game shouldn’t be played; even with what I perceive as faults in a game, it still could and probably would be enjoyed by other people. But I’ll try and point out as much as possible about a game to give an informed decision. I also like reviews by people that do the same.

When it comes to reviews influencing me over which games to buy, I tend not to favor just one review as a sticking point. I read several reviews to get a good feel of what a game is about, and even then, it’s rare that I feel the need to purchase a particular game. Often, I will check out in the field and actually see games in play and participate in games myself before I decided if a game is a ‘must-have’ for me. As a result, I’m usually not the kid on the block that has the latest and greatest game to come out, but I will be able to see what I like and what I don’t like well in advance. But I will say that reviews that illustrate how a games new mechanics work are always interesting to me.

Gamer Avatar
5
Platinum Supporter
Thunderstone Fan

I also like to read negative reviews. I do that with other things I buy on Amazon, so I end up doing the same thing with games. I don’t like reading reviews of any kind for movies, though, unless I’m trying to decide whether the movie would be kid friendly.

I appreciate reviewers that try to maintain objectivity, and I think that is a great thing about your reviews, Andrew. I read “mainstream” game reviews to learn about the game, the mechanics, the contents, etc. but I read the user reviews for the brutal honesty. So, I actually prefer it when BG users write less about the specifics of the game play and more about their own experiences. Of course, when we don’t have a full review for the game on BG yet, I also appreciate when at least one BG user provides a detailed overview.

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